Sali is Climateworks’ International Policy and Ocean Lead and was recently appointed to the UN expert panel for GEO7. We chatted with her to better understand the relationship between the ocean and climate – and why sea turtle gender imbalance is a worrying sign.
Sali, you work in international policy, including the ocean-climate nexus. How did you develop such a breadth of expertise?
I began as a science student and discovered that, although I loved science, I was never going to be a star!
Thankfully I discovered I had a talent for communicating science, along with a love of policy.
Later I was doing research in forestry, and teaching environmental law and policy, when I was approached and asked to provide pro bono advice for a coastal sand mining dispute.
This awakened my love of the ocean and I never looked back.
As I understood how policy works, I then moved into ocean policy.
The switch to focus on climate change came about seven years ago – because I recognised climate as a multiplier to ocean threats – to protect the ocean you have to look at climate.
Recently there’s been a shift in the narrative around the ocean – we’re hearing less about the ocean as a victim of climate change impacts, and more about it being key to the solution. Can you introduce this idea to us?
This is a common point of discussion these days!
The ocean has long been seen purely as ‘a buffer to climate change’. But this ignores the direct impact climate has on our ocean – which absorbs 93 per cent of the heat and roughly 30 per cent of the carbon dioxide we emit through climate change.
All this has a huge impact on the ocean – not a neutral element.
Climate change is directly leading to issues including sea level rise and ocean acidification, as well as ‘dead zones’ where nothing will survive or grow – all these issues are a result of emissions changing our climate. So of course, it became really easy to cast the ocean as a ‘victim’.
Then a few years ago, a report was released that changed this mindset: it showed that the ocean could actually be a staggering 21 per cent of the solution in reaching the Paris Agreement 1.5°C target.
That said, we still have very little that acknowledges and acts on this opportunity in our international climate policies and efforts around the ocean – certainly not proportional to the impact the ocean could have in solving the climate challenge.
Too often, negotiations are ignoring the potential scale of ocean-based mitigation and using it as a trade off or expendable solution – something to do ‘if we get around to it’.
You were one of a small Climateworks contingent who recently returned from COP27 held in Egypt. What did the organisation achieve while there, and where to next?
The key success we achieved in Egypt, from my perspective, was to solidify our relationship with our region.
Climateworks met a lot with colleagues from Southeast Asia – colleagues who are working there, groups who are funding us, and partners we work with – a lot of those sorts of meetings took place.
We also had meetings with colleagues from across the Pacific region, and I moderated a panel at the Moana Blue Pacific Pavilion.
The next step for Climateworks, I think, is to further build on those relationships and more broadly, to help Monash solidify its reputation as Australia’s leading climate university.
Climateworks recently announced an Indonesian pilot study called SEAFOAM, which will scope, convene and present ocean-based climate mitigation options in Indonesia. What is Climateworks’ role in this initiative?
Two things: We’re providing policy options with a very heavy reliance on science – bridging science and policy in a way that is understandable to both people in science and people in policy, as well as those who don’t have that knowledge background.
And we do this in a very transparent fashion, respecting all hats. That’s why international policy and the ocean is always a partnership between Australia and Indonesia-based teams with their on-ground expertise.
Secondly, this work is actually being championed by a panel of Indonesians.
So uptake of the options Climateworks helps identify will be driven by the goals that Indonesia sets for themselves.
And the panel has totally embraced the ethos of the SEAFOAM project, which is very exciting – so far it looks like we’re doing it the right way.
Lastly, is there a marine species that you particularly love – and is it being impacted by our changing climate?
I spent a number of my early career years on the beach, working with sea turtles.
These creatures are being substantially impacted by climate change, specifically through the ‘feminisation’ of turtle populations.
What this means is, when sea turtles lay their clutches (of eggs), the temperature of sand determines whether the eggs hatch as female or males.
So as climate change drives an increase in sand temperatures, we are seeing an increased number of female sea turtles in populations. In some areas it is above 90 per cent.
Now, sea turtles can withstand temperature increases to a certain extent, but we are fast approaching a tipping point, both in gender diversity, and also because beyond a certain temperature point turtle eggs aren’t able to hatch at all.
Thank you for your insights and great explanations, Sali.
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